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Workers' craft comes to light with new exhibit

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By Richard Robbins
Monday, Oct. 3, 2011

They started out in Western Pennsylvania, got shipped to South America and then went deep underground for what seemed an interminable period of time. Eventually, they were put on display in Washington.

Two of the hard hats worn by the Chilean miners rescued last year are featured in an exhibit titled "Against All Odds" at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

The hats, given to the Smithsonian by Chilean miners Carlos Barrios and Jose Henriquez, were manufactured in Westmoreland County by Mine Safety Appliances Co.

Mike Droske, production manager at the company's Murrysville facility, said he was at home watching television as the 33 copper miners trapped underground for more than two months were brought individually to the surface.

Droske said he turned to his wife and said, "Look, they're our hard hats."

It's a point of pride for him and the 400 workers at the plant, Droske said, that the company's distinctive "V-Gard" hard hats helped provide some measure of protection for the miners, whose endurance and courage vaulted them to worldwide celebrity. The ordeal of the miners' entrapment played out live before the world on television and the Internet.

Company officials anticipated the use of the hats by the miners. Rescue workers and even some family members were shown wearing them, said company spokesman Mark Deasy, before the miners were pulled to safety last October.

The Smithsonian exhibit, which opened in August and is scheduled to close next September, has been seen by an estimated 1 million visitors, said Randall Kremer, the museum's director of public affairs.

"It's a very popular exhibition," Kremer said of "Against All Odds: Rescue at the Chilean Mine," which also features a steel capsule used in the rescue, a drill bit and a collection of personal mementoes from the miners.

The exhibit focuses on the geology of the Andes region where the mine is located, why the miners were where they were in the mine, how the mine collapsed and how the miners survived nearly a half-mile underground for 69 days, Kremer said.

Henriquez's hat is displayed on a mannequin inside the rescue capsule, and Barrios' is exhibited inside a glass case.

MSA, headquartered in Cranberry, employs more than 5,000 workers worldwide. The company was founded in 1914 in Wilkinsburg by several former government mine inspectors, Deasy said. An early collaborator in the hard hat business was inventor Thomas Edison, he said.

The V-Gard gets its name from a V-shaped notch on the crown of the hard hat. Deasy said there are millions of such hats in use around the globe.

Droske said it would be possible to identify the MSA worker or workers in Murrysville responsible for the two hats in the Smithsonian exhibit if adhesive stickers attached to the inside of the helmets were still in place.

He said he hopes to view the exhibit.

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